In an Age of Despair, Hope is More Important Than Ever

plant breaking through asphalt
Persistence pays off. | Photo: Vladimir Varfolomeef, some rights reserved

Commentary: If you’re an environmentally concerned person who reads the news, there’s a good chance you’re in a little bit of a funk this month. The incoming administration has been consistent about very few things, but one of those things is a firm commitment to roll back environmental protection. The next four years are likely to be very hard on the planet.

There’s a lot of bad news coming our way, in short, and it’s enough to make a person who cares about the climate, wildlife, and clean air and water want to hide under the covers for the next few years. Add to that the cynicism in public life, already rampant and growing ever faster, and you might decide that only the willfully clueless could maintain something like optimism as we all head into the next four years.

But such cynicism deprives us of the most effective tool we have for changing the world: the conviction that we can change the world. In fact, a clear-eyed, pragmatic optimism may well be the most sensible strategy for dealing with the threats to the environment we're likely to see in the near future.

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Optimism may seem like a tall order: bad news for the environment is likely to come fast and furious in the next few months as the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress settle in to ordering all the items on their decades-old wish list.

Within the first six months of 2017 we can expect a serious attempt to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal body charged with keeping us safe from polluted air, water, and soil.  We can expect similar attempts to slash the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ability to monitor food safety, and of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to keep us safe from toxic chemicals on the job. Signature environmental laws such as the Magnuson-Stevens Act that protects ocean fisheries from overexploitation, the National Environmental Policy Act – which requires federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of the work they do – and a host of federal laws regulating pollution from the fossil fuel and chemical industries are almost certain to be rewritten to emphasize business interests over the health of people and the environment.

One federal environmental law, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), has been the nemesis of the most conservative elements in Congress since the 1970s. There have been numerous attempts by past Republican legislators to restrict the ESA’s reach, from the 1970s-era bill that allowed the Tellico Dam project to hurt the Endangered snail darter to moves by the 104th Congress to remove the law’s Critical Habitat components. (The law has been eroded by Democrats as well, but they’ve usually used bureaucratic inertia rather than legislation.)

California Condor
California condors' recovery program may well take a funding hit | Photo: DJMcCradysome rights reserved 

Though this fact doesn’t get a whole lot of mention in the press, the Endangered Species Act was at the center of the militia uprising in 2014 at the Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada: Cliven Bundy’s notorious refusal to pay his taxpayer-subsidized livestock grazing fees starting in 1993 was in part a reaction to the listing of the desert tortoise as Threatened in 1989. The law, never far from the right-wing’s attention, is derided by the far-right as part of a New World Order plan to depopulate the countryside. Donald Trump has shown, through everything from Cabinet appointments to retweeting wild rumors spread by sites like Infowars, that he takes these notions seriously. In short, there’s an exceedingly large chance that ESA will be severely curtailed or even rescinded in the first year of a Trump administration.

Trump has promised to make it harder for news media to report critically on his policies, most famously through threatening to “tighten up the libel laws” to expose news organizations to lawsuits by public figures. (There are no federal libel laws to tighten up, but he might not let that stop him.) If he succeeds in throttling the press, or if the larger news organizations become more circumspect over fears of lawsuits, that affects our ability to know what’s happening to the environment as a result of Trump administration policy.

The Freedom of Information Act, a crucial tool for members of the public to learn about the plans of government agencies, is another likely target for revision or abolition.  And then there's the judiciary. As the new administration appoints new federal judges, the ability of the judiciary to rein in excesses of the Executive and Legislative branches will dwindle. Take the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has a not-undeserved reputation as the most environment-friendly federal appeals court in the United States. Of 17 Senior Circuit Judges on the Ninth Circuit, 16 are older than 70 this year. Eleven of them are 80 or older. There’s a very good chance the Trump administration will be selecting appointments for several of those Senior Circuit Judge seats in the next four years, potentially altering the court’s trajectory when ruling on environmental cases.

Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

These are all pretty good arguments for pessimism, to be honest.

The Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci would have found much to recognize in this scenario. He was well-acquainted with the idea of a political leader who erodes rights and freedoms after taking power. A left-wing activist in the 1920s under Mussolini, Gramsci was imprisoned at age 35 along with other opponents of the Fascist regime in November 1926.

Gramsci was never released: he died due to inadequate medical care in a prison hospital 11 years later. During those 11 years, Gramsci did the work for which he is best remembered almost a century later: his “Prison Notebooks,” consisting of more than 3,000 pages of analysis of politics and history. In these Notebooks, Gramsci returned several times to a catchphrase he attributed to the French dramatist Romain Rolland, though it’s never been found as such in Roland’s writing:

By “pessimism of the intellect” Gramsci meant, more or less, that wishful thinking helps no one. In order to work in the world as it is, you need to look without illusions at the world as it is. “Optimism of the will,” on the other hand, is different from the simpering "the sun will come up tomorrow" platitudes we've seen these past weeks, mainly coming from people unlikely to bear the brunt of the new administration's policies. Instead, Gramsci's optimism is probably best translated as an invocation to the human capacity to change the world simply by being determined to do so, and then putting that determination into practice. That world-changing can take years of difficult labor, but sometimes you can get results surprisingly quickly.

Those relatively quick results can sometimes come against seemingly long odds. Want an example? Consider desert solar.

In 2009, a few desert activists began to voice their concern that plans to develop large-scale solar projects in the Mojave and nearby deserts posed a serious risk to wildlife habitat, not to mention the wildlife itself. This wasn’t a popular position to take: at the time, after eight years of the Bush administration, the mainstream green movement was ready to push the Obama administration to do something — anything — about climate change. The Obama administration complied, after a fashion, by making renewable energy development on public lands an administration priority.

Solar flux at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System | Photo: Tom Budlong

So those hesitant desert activists had two powerful opponents at the outset: not only the federal government, which started to promote development and clamp down on federal scientists that raised concerns about projects’ impacts, but also the very environmental movement that had previously been their base.

The press was another obstacle. Criticism of desert solar projects is a complicated issue, full of one hands and other hands. Solar is good, but sometimes it’s in the wrong place. Climate change is a huge threat, but so is loss of habitat. The press is used to giving even-handed treatment to straightforward controversies. Journalists are certainly capable of covering a nuanced issue in appropriate detail, but that’s not always the best way of generating page views. Opposition to desert solar projects based on environmental concerns was too nuancey for the mainstream.

A few activists persevered nonetheless, determined to at least give voice to a threatened landscape as the bulldozers rolled. Native tribes voiced their opposition on cultural grounds. Three small desert protection groups – Basin and Range Watch, the Desert Protective Council, and Desert Survivors — were the main voice of opposition to utility scale desert solar in those years. A few desert-loving members of the Sierra Club spoke up as well, against the wishes of the Club itself. 

In 2012, I started reporting on the issue full-time here at KCET. Those small groups kept up their activism, and slowly persuaded a few larger environmental groups to oppose some of the worst projects in the worst places. Few media outlets other than KCET covered the issue other than in a passing, quick-take way. (An exception: David Danelski at the Riverside Press-Enterprise.)

For my part, I spent a lot of time digging into formal government documents. By August 2012, it became clear that “solar flux” — the concentrated solar energy created by fields of mirrors at power-tower-style solar projects — posed a significant possible risk to birds and other wildlife. I got stubborn and kept digging into the issue, especially as the solar power plant at Ivanpah Valley started up and bird injuries mounted. I reported on agency scientists’ misgivings about the technology. I published reports on monthly carcass surveys.

Native people protested the Ivanpah power plant | Photo: Chris Clarke

Eventually, something tipped the scale: in early 2014, media from the Wall Street Journal to the L.A. Times to Reuters covered the Ivanpah plant’s formal groundbreaking by forefronting the bird mortality issue.

Six years of work by fewer than three dozen environmental activists and a few representatives of the Mohave and Chemehuevi tribes, among others, swayed larger environmental groups and agency staff. Two years of work reporting on desert solar here, and David Danelski’s somewhat longer tenure on the topic at the Press-Enterprise, played a role in swaying global news reporting on solar power towers. Distressing photos of burned birds likely helped as well, but we’d been reporting on those photos for nearly a year before the world press took notice.

You don’t have to be an opponent of utility-scale solar to recognize that the discussion over big plants in the desert has shifted. Three years after the mainstream press stories appeared, it’s common knowledge among environmentally concerned people, and others as well, that solar power tower plants can injure birds. The conversation has shifted so firmly that you occasionally hear people suggesting that other kinds of solar plants burn birds, such as photovoltaic plants. (They don't, which just goes to show that using the news media to educate the public is a job that's never quite finished.)

I don't bring up the example of solar flux and birds to boast about KCET's involvement. Rather, it's simply one example of relatively small efforts — in this case, a few dozen people working hard for a few years — causing global perceptions to shift. It's an example with which I'm closely familiar, of course, and the degree to which the public perception of concentrating solar shifted still surprises me when I think about it. 

But there are plenty of other examples of applied activism and education forcing sudden, surprising shifts in the way the world works, from the intensely local — witness then-teenager Erica Fernandez inspiring and motivating her community in Oxnard to defeat a proposed Liquefied Natural Gas terminal and pipeline — to change on a much larger scale. Few of us who were alive in 1988 expected the Berlin Wall to come down the next year. In the mid-1970s, Iran was a heavily militarized dictatorship under the Shah with a secret police so focused and ruthless that Iranian students demonstrating in the U.S. wore masks for fear of reprisals against their families. In 1979, the Iranian people overthrew the Shah and his government in a series of massive, but largely non-violent protests. (What came after is a different matter.)

Take heart: astonishing change can happen in the world if people act to bring it about. The actions you take don’t always have to be huge. But you do have to act. That’s what “optimism of the will” really means: taking action because you know that’s the only way things change.

Banner: candles at a vigil for victims of the Mumbai bombing, 2008. Photo: Alosh Bennett, some rights reserved

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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